Twice A Stranger, by Bruce Clark

The terrible fate of communities dumped into alien 'homelands'
Click to follow
The Independent Culture

Over the coming months, the Serb and Albanian leaders of Kosovo will thrash out the final status of the province across a table in Vienna. At stake, as well as its likely independence, is the future of Kosovo Serb families. If forced to uproot, they will be the latest victims of ethnic cleansing by international treaty, a barbaric but relatively recent phenomenon, as Bruce Clark reminds us in this excellent new book.

The pioneers of population exchange were the Greeks and Turks, who at Lausanne in 1923 faced what was then the greatest refugee crisis the world had seen. The dream of a Greater Greece stretching from the Ionian to the Anatolian interior had died an ugly death after the defeat of Hellenic forces by Turkish nationalists under Mustafa Kemal (later Ataturk). When the Greek army retreated, the fate of more than a million Orthodox Christians in Asia Minor lay in the balance.

Greece, in turn, had nearly half-a-million Muslims within its borders. For nation-builders on both sides, and their British mediator Lord Curzon, the terrible logic of swapping minorities was irresistible. The emerging League of Nations provided a political fig-leaf for its execution.

The power of Clark's book lies not in its diplomatic history, which is concise and balanced, but in his sympathy for the communities and individuals wrenched from their real homes and dumped in alien "homelands". He takes us to the villages of northern Greece where the Turkish-speaking Christians of Anatolia washed up; and we meet the Muslims of once-Christian Ayvalik, who still yearn for the Crete from which their grandfathers were expelled. Their narratives are woven through a book that moves seamlessly from the great halls of Lausanne to the barracks of Constantinople, made a charnel house by the disease and chaos of a fleeing multitude.

Clark finds abundant space for the complex communities whose religion, language and customs no longer fitted in a world re-ordered by the dreadful simplicity of nationalist ideology. Yet the book is not a polemic against the Lausanne treaty, the brilliant Greek statesman Venizelos, or the extraordinary Ataturk. Clark argues that the Western secular nationalism that swept into the collapsing Ottoman Empire was an alien force that exacted an enormous cost. In bringing this cost to life, there is a plea for greater sensitivity from the West as it steps up its demands from these two countries today.